Archive for May, 2013
I had intended my recent discourse on art and life as represented by the Biennale to be my only comment. There are so many other outlandish things which deserve to be brought forward for class discussion.
But a wander down via Garibaldi showed that there is an innocent, unoffending part of the neighborhood which has been artified by means of the incantatory power of the by-now impenetrable language of art. A newcomer identified as “Scatiggio” has chosen to chance his arm by decorating some store windows with brief descriptions of their merchants as artists and/or the merchandise as art.
This doesn’t mean that the thing described is art, but that it is intended to be regarded as art due to its (hopefully) convincing description. There is a case to be made that naming something gives it reality, but this isn’t the time or place to make it.
As a lover of language, and a huge fan of intelligent and original thought, all this seriously slowed me down on my way home from the post office.
I present for your consideration a few examples of this, um, art. And by the way, do not suppose that my disparagement of these shenanigans is due to ignorance. It seems to be a human tendency to ascribe power to inanimate objects — a case could be made for comparing tree-worship to calling pet-store wares “art.” Smart people for centuries believed that the drug-induced ravings of probably vitamin-deficient women, or the incoherent monologues of the mentally ill, were the utterances of gods. Otherwise well-balanced people have always been easy to seduce by the extraordinary assertions of snake-oil or diet-pill salesmen, and to believe all sorts of hoaxes ranging from the Fiji mermaid to dihydrogen monoxide.
People are susceptible in part because they believe that words mean something. Peasants! In the case of Scatiggio we have someone for whom English is not his first language using language to convince us that everyday commodities are art. This is by now a given in the world of art — nothing new here. But if, as the window of the tobacco-shop states, there might not be any boundaries dividing art and reality, it’s even clearer that the boundaries that keep language and thought in their proper relationship have become unreliable. Wow. Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse.
This isn’t such a hard game to play. Here are some of my own efforts, and I donate them to the stores that Scatiggio missed, or ignored. There are loads more, but while art may be long, life is short.
ALBERTO BATTISTEL, butcher. Mixed media: mammal muscle, blood, gristle, grease, waxed paper, steel
At the nexus of life and death, the implacability of knives and money slaughters the fate of generations.
MANUELA PITTERI, cafe owner. Mixed media: coffee, wheat, sugar, chocolate, milk
Essence of mountain soil, murdered beans of darkling aroma are resurrected in the elemental violence of water and fire, transformed from silent plant to music in humanity’s venous meanders.
E FIE, wine store. Mixed media: Grapes, water, plastic, glass
The vine submits to the fervor of fermentation, sacrificing sugar, soaking in its own lymph. How can joy and tears spring from the same tumultuous root, secret subjugation of sense and cogitation, and time relent only to destroy memory?
THE NEWSSTAND. Mixed media: cellulose, ink, vinyl, pigments, surfactants
Screaming paper, the multiple dimensions of life reduced to thin sheets of tree fiber, smeared with cruel dyes, and eager, jaws agape, for miniscule curiosity to enter its monstrous maw, consumed in the ephemeral tragedies of unceasing night and day.
Hey, this is fun. It’s even better than haiku — I don’t have to worry about grammar or meaning. It’s like playing Scrabble inventing words with whatever tiles you’ve got left. Maybe I’ll try it in Turkish next.
I’m going to stop now. I realize that I have left untilled great greenswards of fertile fields of potential: The post office, the barber, the dry cleaner, the jewelry store, the pharmacy, the cell-phone-and-computer shop, the doctor’s office….
But art has to go home now, because I’ve got to clean the bathroom and finish the ironing.
Despite the fact that “Biennale” literally means bi-annual (that is, every two years), this extravaganza of art has been broken up into so many different pieces — architecture, dance, music, etc. — that it has become, in some form or other, an annual event. Which means that at the beginning of June every year we live a week or so of intense spectatorhood at the swarming of the international art-scenesters.
For the brief period leading up to the inauguration (June 1 this year), we are entertained by an extraordinary spectacle of garb and behavior — I don’t mean this as a compliment — and the neighborhood businesses, especially bars and restaurants, get to earn some real money. If the visitors were the proverbial hay, the Biennale would be the proverbial sun, and the local merchants would be scything around the clock.
Short as this interlude may be, it causes all sorts of disorderly thoughts to rush into my brain — thoughts about art, thoughts about what it’s for and how it works, why or whether it matters, and thoughts about people (those are usually nasty, brutish and short — the thoughts, I mean, not the people).
I spent most of yesterday attempting to write them down and organize them so I could share their brilliance with you. But I gave up. Based on the art we see outside here, and the people who pursue it, art has become something so silly that to treat it as something serious has become an art form in itself.
The neighborhood is pulsating with journalists, art-watchers, art-commenters, and art-participaters. And I suppose also some lower-voltage art-perpetrators too, but I doubt that they are wandering around via Garibaldi, or blocking the streets drinking their spritzes where the space is narrowest (“You need to get through here? How quaint”), or leaning against things talking into their phones, drawing attention to themselves. My experience is that real artists rarely look all that important. Irving Penn looked like a vinyl-siding salesman.
Every year there is one major work of art that takes center stage, or tries to. They are always put out along the fondamente, obviously, where they can’t not be seen.
The first year I was here, it was a monstrous concrete hand, half-emerging from the pavement, fingers reaching upward in what might have been a metaphoric expression of yearning — or pleading, or grasping — for freedom. Another year it was a five-story-high sort of stele, glowing night and day with a violently-blue neon sort of waterfall. That blighted the landscape for quite a while. Then there was the decrepit traditional wooden sailing boat from the Comoro Islands, encumbered with two ponderous dumpsters, that floated for months tied to some pilings as it slowly came apart. Oh — and there was the tree, planted on a specially-constructed platform, in front of the Giardini where there are masses of trees.
This year it is a gigantic figure on the island of San Giorgio sometimes known as “Alison Lapper Pregnant,” but at the moment called “Respiro” (“breath”). It is a portrait of English artist Alison Lapper, who was born as shown here (except obviously not 11 meters/33 feet high, purple, and inflatable). Don’t try to understand this by yourself; only Marc Quinn, the artist, and his assorted interpreters can tell you what it really means.
It’s actually very simple. I translate from a photo caption in Panorama.it: This handiwork “proposes a new model of feminine heroism in which love, maternity and vitality reach an unpredictable form and an unexpected peak.” It also is part of a “voyage from the origins of life” and “celebrates fear and wonder in the face of the world in which we live.” Other resonant phrases such as “the beauty and mystery of creation and life” defeat my capacity to link language to thought.
In case you might suppose that this artifact were some self-indulgent creation meant only to stupefy the Biennalists, or that the Palladian monument of the church of San Giorgio might be an inappropriate location for showing it (Peasant!), you should know that it has been exhibited at all sorts of places. It’s been in London since 2005 and was understandably given pride of place at the Special Olympics in London in 2012; other sites range from places associated with some sort of violence, such as a military training field in Tripoli, Libya; in Paris (protests against gay marriage); in Srinagar (protests in Kashmir); in Moore, Oklahoma (tornado tragedy), to more frivolous events which needed to draw more than usual attention to themselves, such as the competition in Berlin of “German models of the future,” to the beach at Long Branch, New Jersey, to Indianapolis, Indiana. She’s traveled more than I have.
With the deepest respect to the subject of this creation (I can’t call it a statue, but I can’t call it a balloon, either), the thoughts it inspires are not related to life, beauty, mystery, fear or wonder. Because I already know what it is. Like everything else on earth, it is a business. Or rather, part of a business. Mining mercury, molding ocarinas, feeding orphans, shoeing horses — all businesses.
Business is one of the fundamental building blocks of life, right in there with carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. And here at the Biennale we see the business of art, which — say what you will — has very little to do with life, beauty, mystery, or wonder, though maybe fear could be seen as playing a part.
Back to Alison Lapper as depicted by her plastic portraitist. I’m all for symbolism, but I am repelled by fabricated symbolism that is tacked onto an invention which is essentially intended to promote the inventor. Artists promote themselves because they want to sell you their stuff. Although Ms. Lapper collaborated in this work for her own reasons, she is merely the vehicle by which Marc Quinn intends to make you notice him. If all he wanted to do was show the beauty and wonder of life, he wouldn’t have put his name on it.
I’m not going to say any more, because this is the point at which my thoughts diverge from my ability to express them.
I will help you understand what this boat full of what looks like mussel-shells actually means: Study the explanation given here, take two aspirin, or a large grappa, or stick your finger in a live socket, and call me in the morning. It’s all art. All of it. Everything. Even your dirty-laundry basket and your old broken bike. You’re wasting your time doing whatever you do — you could be here in Venice, making people admire you.
Speaking of which, there is a wonderful scene in an extremely wonderful movie called “Le Vacanze Intelligenti” (The Intelligent Vacation) with Alberto Sordi. He and his wife are a late-middle-aged couple, fruit-and-vegetable sellers in Rome, whose highly educated children organize their summer holiday for them. No going to the beach this year — the parents are going to learn something! So the itinerary sends them to tour Etruscan tombs, and go to avant-garde concerts in Florence, and they finally end up in Venice, at the Biennale.
It’s summer, it’s sweltering, they’re exhausted, and while he goes off in search of a cold drink for her, she slumps, comatose, eyes shut, into the only available chair, under a tree. And people stop to admire her, and talk about what the artist had in mind, and how skillful he was, and how much she might cost if somebody wanted to buy her. The moment she comes to and realizes she’s been seriously mistaken for art is something sublime.
Once upon a time there was a lamp. Then there was a naked boy with a frog. Now there’s a copy of the lamp. I guess all we need to wait for now is a copy of the boy with the frog.
The important thing is that there is a lamp, and it’s back where it belongs. I’m not sure where the boy with the frog belongs, but it’s probably not at Angkor Wat or the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak. I doubt it (he? them?) would fit in well at Petra, or the Stone Circles of Senegambia, or the Medina of Fez. Just reminding some people that Venice and its lagoon are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There is undoubtedly a place where the boy and his amphibian would belong, but it’s not at the Taj Mahal, or Chartres Cathedral, or here.
I am now re-establishing radio contact with the rest of the world. The recent crackling silence was completely predictable, at least to me. May is a great month if you’re a plant, but if you’re me, it’s an Olympic biathlon involving two of the city’s three biggest boating events: the corteo for the Festa de la Sensa, on Ascension Day (May 12 this year), and the Vogalonga (May 19).
Once again, I dedicated two weeks to working in the registration office for the Vogalonga. Sound simple? The first week, yes. The second week, right up to 6:00 PM the day before the event, was a crescendo of desperation — not on my part, but those who came, as one hollow-eyed supplicant put it, “A thousand kilometers over the Alps with our boats,” thinking they could sign up at the last minute and discovering that all the 1,700 bibs, one per boat, had already been booked.
I heard stories about people needing a number for their dying best friend. I didn’t hear any pleas based on expiring grandmothers or promises to small children, but the accumulated emotional tension began to take a toll on me. It wasn’t just the exclamations of doomed desire that were so tiring (“But why?” “But why?” “I have the money right here” “Can’t you find just one number for me?” “But I didn’t know” “I didn’t read the website” “I don’t have internet” “We’ve come all this way” “”Noooooooooooo, it can’t be truuuuuuuue”), it was my irritation at situations which could easily have been prevented if even one of their group had had a functioning medulla oblongata. Or whatever part of the brain governs logic and rationality. If there is such a part.
While everybody who already had their numbers were working themselves into a froth over the unpleasant weather forecast, I and my colleagues were struggling to resolve many silly and time-consuming and avoidable problems. Reservations made but not paid for; payments that didn’t correspond to the booking; adding people to boats; subtracting people from boats; doing long division of people from boats: the single reservation for 20 rowers who were assumed by us to all occupy the same boat, but which it turned out were each rowing by themselves, hence requiring 19 more numbers. That was fun. “You need 19 numbers? Sure, I’ll just make them right here for you, like Subway sandwiches. You want pickles?”
Compared to all that, rowing the event is almost always easier, and more enjoyable, and more, well, rational.
You might have heard that it rained; you might have heard that the rain was something epic! That some boats capsized! Frankly, it was all much better than I’d feared. The rain came down in hurled handfuls of big hard round drops, then shifted, like a shower-head, to fine, thin and steady, then heavy and steady, then lots of little drizzly drops, then another downpour, then a pause, then another downpour. After Mazzorbo, the sun came out and we all dried off. As for overturned boats, if you ride a horse, what can happen to you? You fall off. If you’re in a boat, what can happen? You fall in. Lino’s fallen in countless times. I’ve fallen in, in January, no less. Get a grip, people.
That said, however, falling in isn’t equal for everyone. We heard later from a friend who had been rowing in a big Venetian boat that at Mazzorbo a rower in a single kayak decided to cross their bow at the last moment, got dinged, and over he went. But he couldn’t manage to come up because he had lashed all sorts of accoutrements, luggage, supplies, and even himself, to his kayak, which meant he couldn’t manage to right it and he couldn’t get out of it either. Think about it. Think medulla oblongata. Happily, the Venetian rowers managed to haul him back over and up into the air, but it was a very close call.
They also saw another boat capsize (the reasons for this aren’t clear — we weren’t in a hurricane) — it was a kayak again, this time for two rowers which, as our friend explained, also contained two very small children, one of whom was about three months old. The only glimmer of intelligence in that scenario was that the presumed parents had fitted their kids with lifejackets. People like this shouldn’t be allowed out of the house, much less into a boat.
There was the by-now traditional logjam in the Canale di Cannaregio, caused by the by-now traditionally inept, vision-impaired, brain-dead coxswains on the long rowing shells who seem not to understand that their boat needs to keep going straight forward and that their job is to see that it gets done. Big long boats slewing around slaunchwise and getting stuck are like big expensive beaver dams forcing all the arriving boats to jam up. It’s not just that they create problems — they don’t know what to do to fix them. As we see in the video by a certain Bas Schols; here’s the link for those who don’t see the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRyEnCKno3o .
A close second for the prize for Best Way to Create Problems goes to the people who just stop rowing and sit there in their boat, usually in narrowish spaces or at blind corners. You can hardly ever discover a reason for this. Of course they’re tired; we’re all tired. But when they’re driving in the center lane of the highway back home, do they just stop when they feel like it and sit there? I feel doubtful.
The Sunday before all this, May 12, was the Festa de la Sensa, and we participated in the commemoration of the “Wedding of the Sea.” We row out toward the Lido, following the big fancy ceremonial boat called the “Serenissima,” past the Morosini Naval School where the cadets are lined up along the embankment, as sharp as creases in starched organdy, shouting “Urrah!” when commanded to do so by the bosun’s whistle. That is absolutely the coolest thing about the entire event, though of course tossing the wreath into the water to commemorate the dead sailors is important too. And a ring-like object with ribbons tied onto it also gets blessed and tossed. Another chance to be crushed together in a boat-scrum, but at least here we all know each other and actually know how to move our boats around. That’s it for boats.
The rest of the month is a rapid unraveling of assorted appointments and events. For example, I sat most of the afternoon waiting for the long-expected boiler repairman to come replace the replacement washer from a few weeks ago. He was supposed to come in the morning, but only by calling up did we learn that he’d been moved to the afternoon. Dazzling efficiency! We could be in Sweden! Wait — it’s gets better. He phoned at 3:30 to say he couldn’t come because they hadn’t given him the part he needed to install. They thought they had, police said. (I am adhering to the practice recommended by the old city editor to the cub reporter, my former boss, who told him, “You can write anything you want to, as long as you add ‘comma police said.””)
At 6:00 it was off to the Generali Insurance Company’s boathouse for the presentation of the restored 8-oar gondolone. We needed to swell the ranks, it seemed, so we were there. We try to be good sports on land as well as sea. I was hoping they’d have cookies, but they got in a caterer and had hors d’oeuvres and asparagus risotto. I like being wrong like that.
Tomorrow afternoon Lino will be at Malamocco for hours, as one of the judges overseeing the eliminations for the next official rowing race (Sant’ Erasmo, June 2). That evening, dinner at the Non-Commissioned Naval Officers Club, a cholesterol-laden thank-you from a group of young French students because not only did we pick up the dropped/lost wallet of one of their members (containing 70 euros and also an address) but thanks to Skype and the fact that little Pauline’s father was home when I called, we managed to return it to her the next day. And a big shout-out to Mrs. Rideout and Mrs. Gordon, whose draconian French courses in high school are still paying off, if only in fractured form.
Friday evening, the annual corteo to transport the statue of Our Lady of Succor (“Maria Ausiliatrice”) from the church of San Pietro di Castello to the church of San Giuseppe. This year we’re going to be carrying as many people as we can, hoping to transfer into Venetian boats many of those who usually follow us on foot along the fondamente.
Saturday, a batch of us are off to Burano to collect four of our tornado-devastated boats from the boatyard where they have been repaired. We’re either towing or rowing them back; it doesn’t seem clear yet which one. I’m for rowing, myself, not that anyone consults me. The forecast isn’t too pretty.
Sunday, we’re going with a big group in a bus to Trieste to the annual reunion of the veterans of the Automobile Corps. Lino did his compulsory 18-month military service in Rome with this arm of the armed forces, repairing and maintaining Jeeps, trucks, and assorted ministerial vehicles. He recently joined the nearest chapter of the motorized veterans, and the big outing sounds like it’s going to be fun, except for the promised thunderstorms and drenching rain.
We’ll get to march around the Piazza dell’Unita’ d’Italia for a while, then go off to some countryside establishment to gorge on Friulian specialties (think San Daniele prosciutto and frico, or fried cheese) — possibly the true purpose of the expedition. Then to visit some famous nearby monastery blanketed by rose gardens. We’ll have to get up before 5:00 to get the train to Treviso, the starting point, but I’d walk to Treviso for a shot at a plate of frico.
Next week’s calendar is ominously empty. I say “ominous,” because you know how Nature feels about a vacuum.